How to Master a Language for Life
When you picture yourself having mastered a foreign language, what mental images arise? What type of situation would be most motivating to see yourself in?
For most people, speaking with fluency and ease—having spontaneous, enjoyable conversations with native speakers—is the epitome of language mastery. In general, when we say that someone has learned a language and become fluent, we are referring mostly to their ability to speak.
The special allure of being able to engage successfully in conversation with speakers of a foreign language reflects the fact that language is an inherently social phenomenon.
Language allowed human societies to develop and thrive in the first place.
Children learn their mother tongue by social interaction, initially within their families; and people who learn foreign languages most quickly are often those who seek out a great deal of social interaction.
A bit of language acquisition theory
One of the three most important theories of how people acquire languages is the Social Interactionist Theory, initially developed by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky and disseminated in the West by American Jerome Bruner, also a psychologist renowned for his contributions to cognitive learning theory in educational psychology.
In this paradigm, children’s language proficiency develops in tandem with their cognitive construction of a social world.
Underlying the process of acquiring semantic content and linguistic competence is the more fundamental “communicative intent”. In other words, even as infants, it is our desire to communicate socially that motivates language acquisition. In first-language acquisition, the most fundamental ingredient is the interaction between parents and children—the latter seeking out language experiences and the former mediating the learning process by providing modified input and corrections.
In second-language acquisition theory, the Interaction Hypothesis analogously posits that direct interaction and communication are pivotal to the development of language proficiency. Conversation, wherein authentic communication is necessary and parties must negotiate the meaning, provides the ideal comprehensible input for the language learner.
The takeaway: how to boost your language acquisition through speaking
Other theoretical approaches exist, but the Social Interactionist Theory and the Interaction Hypothesis help elucidate a fundamental truth in language acquisition: engaging in conversation in a foreign language is cognitively stimulating, extremely motivating, and provides constant, ideal learning opportunities for students.
Reading, writing, and passive listening are all invaluable parts of your language acquisition journey, but it is speaking that really brings languages to life.
We can derive practical benefit by considering how the foregoing theoretical discussion sheds light on three common questions faced by students of foreign languages and curriculum developers alike:
- Should students be encouraged to speak early on or is it best to delay speaking until after students have acquired sufficient comprehension, vocabulary, and grammatical mastery?
Many methods advocate having students learn passively for a few semesters before engaging in conversation. “First, learn grammar and vocabulary. Once you are advanced, you can take conversation classes”—so goes this line of reasoning.
The Social Interaction Theory and Interaction Hypothesis clearly point in the opposite direction. If students are denied the opportunity and the challenge to engage in the conversation early on, at best their progress will be slow due to lack of motivation and cognitive stimulation. At worst, they will be so bored and demotivated that they will simply give up.
Including some conversation in the early stages of language acquisition “keeps it real” for students and will make them much more interested and focused when practicing the other language skills—listening, reading, writing, and even studying vocabulary and grammar.
Students should be allowed—encouraged even—to make mistakes and just have fun exploring the language in the early stages.
- Should conversation in language classes be highly structured or free-flowing?
I cringe when seeing language methods in which the “speaking component” relies on students reading dialogues and repeating rote structures (perhaps modifying a noun here and an adjective there).
There is no social interaction happening! Students are not at all engaged! Therefore, language acquisition is hampered.
There is a place for structured conversation in language classes. In particular, at more basic levels or when introducing a grammatical pattern, structured dialogue can be very useful, especially if creative teaching tactics help the dialogue come to life.
Generally, however, the free-flowing conversation is what brings social interaction into the process, which, as we have seen, is fundamental to our ability as humans to acquire language. Our brains can sustain motivation, interest, and therefore the concentration on the spontaneous conversation for the hundreds of hours that are needed to master a foreign language.
Therefore, the enjoyable, engaging conversation should be at the heart of any language acquisition program.
- Is it important to learn with native speakers?
Since authentic social interaction is an essential element in language acquisition, one way to approach this question is to ask whether interacting with native speakers is important to the social aspect of learning a language.
To that, I would answer, from my experience, with a resounding “yes”. While speaking in a foreign language to someone from your own country, who shares your mother tongue, can be fun for a while, it “gets old” and begins to feel inauthentic quickly. Likewise, speaking to a foreigner in a language that is not their own is not fully satisfying or stimulating.
The ultimate thrill and authentic experience, which never gets old, is successfully communicating with native speakers in their own language.
I will address other aspects of this question in the third post about speaking. For now, suffice it to say that the social interaction theory helps clarify one reason that, empirically, conversation classes with native speakers tend to be more engaging and therefore more beneficial to language acquisition.
So how can I get more conversation in my target language right away?
Join our Meetup groups to gain free access to trained native-speaking teachers through group events. Conducted completely in your target language, with grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary corrections, these are a great way to integrate speaking practice into your language-learning routine.
 Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 The other two are the developmental cognitive theory of Jean Piaget and the information processing theory of Brian MacWhinney and Elizabeth Bates.
 Long, Michael (1985). "Input and Second Language Acquisition Theory". In Gass, Susan; Madden, Carolyn (eds.). Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House. pp. 377–393.
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